I read a lot of self-help books –– a fact which has become exponentially more true this past year. As a person with trauma and mental illness, there’s something deeply comforting about an external voice telling me what to do and how to feel. More often than not, this voice is a straight older white woman, who encourages tactics like “deep breathing” and “staying in the moment.” For that reason, I take all of these books with a grain of salt, semi-ignoring the optics of what’s being said or who is saying it, and just reveling in the opportunity to practice exhaling for a few minutes.
But then (!) I read a self-help book that was altogether different: Marlee Grace’s Getting to Center. The book’s subtitle is “Pathways to Finding Yourself Within the Great Unknown,” and I was so consistently driven and grounded by the pathways offered. Grace writes from an honest, refreshing, queer, antiracist lens, speaking directly to the complicated nature of being a body existing under capitalism. The text is self-referential, humorously aware of the mindfulness legacy that precedes it, but the intentional crafting of each chapter keeps it from ever feeling mundane or redundant. Grace––a dancer, artist, quilter, talk show host, and writer ––uses her own experiences of sobriety, running a business, and being a lesbian as a backdrop to consider creativity, imposter syndrome, grief, love, money, and more.
I underlined and starred pages of this book like crazy, but I want to offer one passage, taken from the ‘prayers’ Grace beautifully crafts. From A Prayer for Coming Out:
“today i pray for the good fight / for rest and visible intimacy / today i pray you feel seen / no matter how you present / for feeling queer enough / today i pray for blissful love that catapults / through the air and into the everything / but more than ever ever ever i pray for safety, which / so many of us will never fully feel-–but we can reach / toward together in an effort of ever flowing light”
I had the privilege to chat with Grace about her book, internet addiction, higher powers, and the moon’s creative potential.
This Interview has been condensed for clarity and concision.
Sarah Yanni: I’d love to start just by just talking about how this book happened. It feels incredibly pertinent but also timeless, so I’m curious about the timeline––when did you decide to write this book?
Marlee Grace: Yeah, it was Fall of 2018, shortly after How to Not Always be Working had come out. I was getting ready to move back to Michigan from California, I was going through a breakup and, you know, had already been divorced at this point. My agent was sort of like, “I think you know transitions well ––f rom morning to afternoon, from winter to spring, from married to not, from straight to gay –– you have this developed map. What if you wrote a book about it?” And I was like, sounds great! So yeah, I started working on it, clearly having no idea that the subtitle “pathways to finding yourself within the great unknown” would be so relevant in the year 2020. I’m really interested to see how it continues to grow as time passes.
SY: And did the release plans change because of COVID?
MG: No, my pub date was always October 27th, always exactly one week before the presidential election.
SY: I’m also thinking about how this book speaks so effectively to queerness. I think for a lot of people in 2020, it’s been the first time where they’ve really reckoned or had to deal with fear about their bodies, struggles around being and moving and feeling…but for queer folks and marginalized folks, this is a state that we already know to some extent. So I guess I’m wondering how and if your relationship to writing and “getting to center” has changed since your divorce, and since openly identifying as lesbian? Do you think this book would be the same if that work hadn’t happened?
MG: Hm, that’s a great question. I mean, I guess the question is like, can you extract queerness from an experience? I think it’s really interesting to think about, like, there are a lot of parts in the book that I’m like, well, that’s just me speaking, but like, is me speaking ever not [queer]? I’ve identified publicly as queer since I was a teenager, but you know, that’s where I think language is so interesting –– as my relationships and my sexuality started shifting under the umbrella of queerness and I really started coming out to myself, I was like, oh, I think I’m actually gay or lesbian. And I’m always so careful to tell my story; I think that bisexuality and pansexuality and queerness are so vast and can hold so much. And there’re so many people who have made partnership transitions that looked like mine who didn’t change their label or identifiers; that are like, no, I was married to a man, now I’m with a woman, I’m bisexual and that is totally valid. And so sometimes I get a little nervous the way I explain that shift for me, but I have to just…it’s just true for me. So yeah, I think the book definitely is written through the lens of a dyke…and I think that that definitely shaped the book. I think also being in partnership with a cancer lesbian, like just a watery lesbian partner, that kind of support also shaped the book.
SY: I really appreciate how you write about the importance of cultivating different lists and tools to break out of discomfort––to know what brings you to a place of feeling good (or at least, to a place of feeling less shitty than you did five minutes prior.) What has that looked like for you in 2020?
MG: Right now, I’m staring at my wall and around my window, and it’s just covered in sticky notes. I feel like sticky notes have become the new list for me. A list is not manageable in 2020––it has to be two words at a time posted everywhere so that I don’t forget. And I love what you said about how the goal, especially in 2020, has not been to feel better or feel my best, but it’s to feel less shitty than I did five minutes ago. Right. I think shifting where the bar is to meet, is really important. And, you know, I walked through 2020 with a lot of weird, interesting dynamics, like moving to a new town and being really isolated and having a partner who was gone for her job all the time, fighting fires. Yet on the flip side of that, I had a book coming out, I teach online classes, so my income was not only unaffected by the pandemic, it almost served it. People are home, they’re alone and they’re disconnected, and they’re like “Let’s take a quilting class!” So It was really interesting. One other thing that’s been helpful to me lately, as we go into these continued months of quarantine and isolation, is gratitude lists. And just sharing them with other people, being like “Hey, I want to share with you, this is what I’m grateful for today” and seeing how much that shifts what’s in me. I’ve been making really cheesy lists, I’ve been doing some mirror work and like affirmations in the literal mirror…it feels so cheesy but they’re really transforming me.
SY: I’ve seen on Instagram you’re planning to take a social media sabbatical. With a book being released, I would assume authors usually spend an extra amount of time being ‘online’, especially now since all tours are virtual. Could you talk a little bit about this choice and maybe how that space and time will reflect some of the practices you wrote about in Getting to Center?
MG: I love the way you just said that, because I feel like I just can’t quite integrate what I know right now. There’s so much in the book that I read back to myself where I’m like, man, the way I interface with apps is really blocking me from making these things come true. When I’ll deactivate towards the end of January, it will have been three months of the book being out. And I was like, you know what, I’ll give it three months time to really blast promotion, talk about the book, have fancy people boast about it and repost what they say. Not to sound so new age-y, but it feels very…the spirit was like, these are the dates: January 17th to May 17th. May 17th will be, god-willing, my 10-year sober anniversary. And, you know, I’ve loved talking about and celebrating my sobriety on social media. So many people on there have been following me since my one-year anniversary. Then I thought, do I just log off? And that was another very like god-channeled moment where god was like, you have to go away, you have to deactivate. And I feel really free of a lot of the other ways people are addicted, like a compare and despair, or wanting more followers…I just don’t care about that, but I do just click around on it. And if I delete it off my phone, I’ll get in the browser, then I’ll give somebody else the password and I’ll make a fake account. I will lose my mind in it.
I was talking to my partner this morning and she was like, you know, do you really want to leave it forever? And I said, I don’t think I do. Especially with my dance Instagram––there’s so much that I love about being there and connecting there and how much change I’ve been able to make in my community and how much sharing my story is special. And I think what I’m so curious about is: can someone leave, when they’ve built a business using it specifically? Not just someone who’s an artist and doesn’t want to use it anymore, but like, someone who truly relies on it for their income? How do they leave if they want to? So that’s sort of what the research is about right now, and what I’m sharing on my Patreon and newsletter. Like, what does that look like? Let’s figure it out together.
SY: I’m interested in what you said about the spirit sort of moving you to those dates. I have a very lapsed relationship to religion, but throughout your book, I still felt really connected to the writing and the way you write about “god” or whatever one might insert in the place of god. It felt very accessible and still possible to connect with. Sometimes when I’m reading a text that starts to get into the spiritual, you know, I start to, I guess, shut myself out of it, or just feel like, okay, this is no longer for me. But I never felt like that in the moments of prayer in your book; it actually just felt really resonant and ritualistic and in a supportive way.
MG: I love that. It’s funny because I grew up in basically an atheist / agnostic household. I went through like a weird stint of really intense Christianity, around 18, 19, truly to date a boy who was Christian, and I was like, all right, let’s go, let’s join Campus Crusade for Christ. My best friend––who was also the first girl I ever hooked up with––basically was like, you’re quitting Campus Crusade, we need to leave this. So grateful that she came to get me out of that. But, yeah, then I really re-learned to have a relationship with god––who I also often refer to as my higher power––through twelve-step fellowships. And it’s always been hard. All the steps and the rules, and how God with an uppercase G is usually gendered “He”…it keeps a lot of people out of the rooms and afraid and upset. But it’s so interesting because the literature itself is really abundant and interesting. It talks about being catapulted into the fourth dimension of existence, which is like so cool to me.
I was talking to Fariha [Róisín], who wrote the foreword of my book, and and she’s Muslim, and we have our own really different concepts of god, but also, they’re exactly the same. And at a book launch, someone in the chat asked, why do you write books? It’s a great question. And I was like, god told me to write books. I just feel very called to write books and share them. And I don’t argue with that. I just show up.
SY: I read a lot of self-help books and your book feels really different from others, in a great way. I also read a lot of poetry, maybe because it also feels healing. I want more things like that! Are there any other writers or thinkers that you’ve found are speaking to similar themes? Or that create that experience for you?
MG: I mean, I gotta shout out Fariha’s novel [Like a Bird] that came out this year, so good. And her poetry is a little more self-help-ish, but her novel is so interwoven with her family and ancestral experiences, and it’s dedicated to survivors––it’s for people who have survived anything, really. The story is specific, but I feel like her writing allows anyone in, regardless of their identity or their history. So I definitely recommend that.
I just started reading and did an event with Katherine May who wrote the book Wintering. And, you know, she is a straight white lady who lives in the UK, but she wrote this really just like sweeping memoir; it’s memoir meets self-help. She has chronic illness and autism and is a really interesting person and I’m really enjoying her book, which is about like, rest and retreat, both in actual winter and what she calls seasons of wintering.
I also want to shout out Cameron [Esposito’s] book, Save Yourself. She’s just digging into the god she grew up with, and how to sort of, you know, rediscover yourself outside of that. I have one more book that I’m gonna say––and it’s extremely het, extremely straight––but you can change the words in your head! It’s called Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. I literally just randomly found it at a bookstore once, and it sort of focuses on this subtitle––a way to be fully together without giving up yourself. It is so beautiful in terms of offering that shift from codependency into what me and my partner refer to as a sacred union. Especially in the 2020 pandemic, I really want everyone to read it. So many amazing offerings about true spaciousness and autonomy within partnership. Okay, wait, I have one more! My all time favorite self-help book ever made is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.
SY: And last but not least, of course, you bring astrology into your writing. Do you have any full moon or new moon rituals? How does your chart give shape to your work?
MG: I’m not really one to have specific moon rituals. I am a new moon bleeder, so I generally have my menstrual cycle around the new moon and that’s something I track. I will also say that on the true new moon, like the days where the light is barely peeking out, those are my best writing days. I notice my creative cycle gets really recharged, like with the metaphor of the light returning.
It’s eclipse season right now, and I’m sure we’ll be past the next one when this comes out, but there’s just a lot of clarity coming up for me that feels really peaceful. I have my Sun, Mercury, Venus, Midheaven and Chiron all in Gemini. So I’m truly here to be a communicator and a messenger. So if anything, I definitely invite the phases of the moon or certain astrological aspects to slow me down, slow my words down, because I can move pretty fast through the world. That’s where I’m lucky to have Virgo rising and a Capricorn moon! That earth just takes me down.